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Employers Are Hiring More Teens to Ease Labor Shortages

A woman holding a tray in a coffee shop.

​Teenager workers are a hot commodity this summer, as employers are desperate to fill jobs. Conditions are creating the best summer hiring opportunities for teenage job seekers in years, with employers showing more willingness to hire candidates without experience as well as offer greater schedule flexibility and higher wages, signing bonuses and perks than in summers past.

And teens are responding to the demand. In May, the share of 16- to 19-year-olds considered part of the workforce rose to nearly 37 percent, the highest rate since the Great Recession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds dropped in May to 9.6 percent, its lowest level since 1953 and down from nearly 30 percent in May 2020.

The teen employment rate is still far from the nearly 60 percent high of 1979, or the over 50 percent levels of the 1980s and 1990s, but this summer marks a sharp rebound from the record-low 20 percent employment rate among teens in April 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered sectors such as leisure and hospitality, retail, and tourism that typically hire teens.

More Teens Seeking Summer Work

The growth in teen job seekers is up 35 percent year over year according to Snagajob, the Richmond, Va.-based platform for finding and hiring for hourly work.

Snagajob CEO Mathieu Stevenson said more teens are seeking work because of increasing availability of vaccines for COVID-19, teens not typically being eligible for enhanced unemployment benefits, and a spike in college deferments.   

"More teens are taking a year off and delaying entering college than we've historically seen, and that has led to more teens looking for jobs," he said. Stevenson and other experts agree that the urgency of employers seeking to fill open jobs is another prime factor in rising teen employment.

"This summer is a banner year for both sides of the youth labor market," said Alicia Sasser Modestino, an economist and associate professor at Northeastern University in Boston who studies labor markets and youth development. "On the demand side, employers are scrambling to fill entry-level low-wage jobs in restaurants, retail stores and hotels as these industries fully reopen this summer. But adults are looking for jobs in other industries with higher pay, better benefits and schedules that fit their child care needs. On the supply side, teens looking to get out of their houses and get a toehold in the labor market are ready and willing to work right now. It's a perfect match."

This is the best labor market for teens in generations, Stevenson said. "Prior to this summer, you may have needed previous experience for certain jobs, and now employers are considering people without that experience. Hospitality in particular has seen a huge resurgence in hiring in the last two to three months. New sectors have even opened up for teen hiring, like warehousing and logistics." 

Critical Need

At the end of April, job openings nationwide reached a record high 9.3 million, including 1.5 million open jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector and 965,000 open retail jobs.

A mass exodus of workers in these sectors is compounding the need to fill jobs that are now available as the economy reopens. Approximately 649,000 retail workers left their jobs in April, the largest one-month turnover figure since the BLS began tracking that data more than 20 years ago. Departing retail workers told the BLS that long hours, low pay, understaffed stores and rude customers have led them to consider switching industries or enrolling in the government's enhanced unemployment benefits programs.

On the other hand, the data show that the rising demand for workers has driven hourly wages higher. "We are seeing wage pressure for hourly workers manifested in different ways," Stevenson said. "It's being driven by major logistics and e-commerce retailers like Walmart, Amazon, Costco and Target that have set a wage umbrella for the industry. Implementing $15-to-$16-an-hour starting wages has created wage pressure for other employers. We've also seen an increasing use of sign-on bonuses and retention benefits for hourly workers, and white-collar-type benefits—reskilling and development programs, debt-free education programs, and accelerated managerial job pathing—making its way to hourly workers."   

Temporary Blip

The current rebound in elevated teen employment doesn't mean teen labor force participation will return to its historically high levels, experts agreed.

"Given the trends of the past several decades, don't count on this strong teen labor market to last beyond the summer," Sasser Modestino said. "Since the 1970s, many of the traditional teen jobs have been automated, like grocery store checkouts and video stores, or taken by other part-time workers like college students or retirees. Employers are less willing to train workers, making teens—the least experienced—the last to be hired. And fewer youth want to work, especially those in middle- and upper-income households doing summer enrichment or unpaid internships that look good on a college application."

[Want to learn more about hiring post-pandemic? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]


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